Saturday, November 8, 2014

Strays run dangerously wild


The problem of feral dogs running in wild packs in ecologically sensitive regions of Sikkim would not have been a worry if dogs were part of the natural food chain. That is however not the case in the higher reaches of Sikkim, in regions stretching from the cold desert of North Sikkim to the border ridges of East district. Dogs, innocently taken up by army personnel to their posts in these otherwise inhabited remote locations, have grown in number, moved away from army installations and now roam wild, imperiling the fragile ecosystems they now inhabit. The concern has been flagged often by those working on wildlife and forest matters, and now, even local populations have noticed the problem and are seeking solutions. The situation is worrisome, but experts believe still manageable if a concerted effort is to humanely correct the balance. Ignore it for too long, and the damage will be permanent.
A recent visit to Lachen in North Sikkim revealed that the public and even the Dzumsa there is grappling with the now noticeable presence of feral dog packs in the forests and grasslands where the closest one got to dogs in the past were the magnificent Tibetan Mastiffs. Ironically, the valleys above Lachen no longer have purebred Tibetan Mastiffs anymore. Tibetan Wolves also lived in these rarefied heights, but now the terrain is on the verge of being overrun by feral dogs, descendents of puppies picked up from the streets of Gangtok and other towns, retained at army camps and which have now outgrown the confines of the army establishments.
Areas like Yangri, Talung, Gochung and Giagong above Thangu have seen a marked increase in the number of feral dog packs, locals inform.
It is unclear whether any formal study has been undertaken on the impact of this new “predator” in the higher reaches of Sikkim [this has become a problem along army establishments in high altitude areas], but locals like the Lachenpas are convinced that the dog packs are preying extensively on local wildlife and even winning the competition against leopards and snow leopards for food since dogs hunting in packs in much more efficient that the solitary leopards.
Some Lachenpas who know the lay of the land well insist that wildlife sightings have substantially decreased in their area because of hunting by feral dogs. Where there were no wild dog packs till a decade ago, locals estimate that there could be anything up to 150 now, roaming in several packs.
Chewang Lachenpa is convinced that these packs, apart from foraging on easily preyed local feasts like marmots and migratory birds, are also hunting Blue Sheep and even attacking livestock like sheep in the pastures.

The worry is not unattended. Forest officials have raised concern in the past and Sikkim Anti-Rabies and Animal Health programme [SARAH] has attempted to address this problem and work in some longterm solutions.
When contacted, Dr. Thinlay N Bhutia, Programme Coordinator/ SARAH Division at the Animal Husbandry Department, underlines that before anyone delves into the issue of feral dogs and their impact on local ecosystems, it is important to understand the genesis of the problem. He believes that feral dog population has grown from camp-dogs belonging to the armed forces and local communities. The camp dogs have been around for at least the past 30 years and their numbers have been growing since then and in the recent past, have outgrown camps and moved out.
“As these dogs have been breeding unchecked, their population has increased rapidly and many now live in the wildlife parks and cold desert areas, largely independent of humans. The situation has been further aggravated by the improper garbage management of Army and Paramilitary establishments as more garbage will attract and provide food for more dogs and sustain bigger populations,” he states.
As mentioned, it is not just army camps, but even villages from where dog populations can grow out.
“It is a pertinent fact that these feral dogs are having a negative impact on endangered endemic wildlife such as the Bharal (Himalayan Blue Sheep), Red Panda, Shapi (Himalayan Tahr) and Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass) by hunting them. The dogs are also competing with the Snow Leopard and Tibetan Wolf for scarce food resources and as these dogs hunt in large packs they have a significant advantage over the leopard or wolf,” informs Dr. Bhutia.
He adds that the SARAH Division is implementing a feral dog control/wildlife conservation programme in Sikkim. This flagship programme under SARAH was started in April 2008. Since then, SARAH has carried out numerous programmes in various places of Sikkim where more than 3,000 feral dogs have been sterilized, vaccinated and given veterinary care. SARAH even assisted in Leh where they also have similar problem with feral dogs, it is learnt.
Dr. Bhutia explains that it is now accepted internationally that measures such as mass culling, impounding or relocation do not solve dog overpopulation problems. Temporary reduction of the street-dog population in one area increases the chances of survival of remaining dogs, provides opportunities for newly-abandoned dogs and promotes the influx of dogs from neighboring localities. Sterilization presents a more humane and long term solution.
The Programme coordinator adds that dog population and rabies control is most effectively and sustainably achieved by a range of coordinated measures including, dog population management through family planning, Pet Registration and responsible pet ownership, Habitat/ Food Source Control (Proper Garbage/ Waste Disposal Programme) and Rabies control through systemic administration of Anti-Rabies Vaccination.
As per Dr. Bhutia, each of these components must be complete and functional programs in themselves, capable of making significant contributions to an overall Dog Control Program.  By combining these programs together into a complete Dog Control Program, it becomes possible to provide a viable long term solution to Sikkim’s rabies and dog population problems.
It may be informed that many places like Lachung, Bichuu, Chaten, Yumthang in North Sikkim have already been covered in collaboration with different stakeholders like army and paramilitary units posted there. In East Sikkim, in collaboration with the Forest Department and World Wildlife Fund, places like Phadamchen, Zuluk, TR Junction, AP Salami, Tamzey , Kyonglasla have been covered and over a thousand dogs sterilised and rehomed!
One team of SARAH has been working in Lachen area since the last week of Oct 2014.
The main objective of this Feral Dog Control Programme is to reduce the number of feral dogs in national parks/cold dessert, sterilise and vaccinate community dogs and thus prevent unwanted dogs from joining the packs of feral dogs which roam and  hunt in the national parks, Improve the chances of survival for many endangered wild species, Reduce the risk of dog-bite injury and rabies outbreaks in local communities, including for military and para-military personnel, Reduce the risk of spread of communicable disease between wild and domestic animals in and around wildlife protected areas
The Project Director informs that this initiative poses many challenges and involves substantial risk for the team as the feral dogs living in the cold desert are difficult to catch and handle. SARAH has designed a special protocol for this programme and some of its personnel were trained under famous wildlife Vets from Global Wild Life Resources. The team performs this project very tactfully and sensibly as the place is known to be ecologically fragile area and the feral dogs themselves are so clever that the team needs new and innovative ideas, protocols and patience. “Great care is taken to ensure the safety of the dogs and prevent hypothermia before, during and after surgery in the colder weather,” he informs.
It is also informed that the project uses large specialized portable dog pens with trap door which has been specially made to catch whole packs of dogs (up to 12 at a time). Dogs are fed in the capture pens on the daily basis and when a large number of dogs confidently enter the pen, the trap door is closed. SARAH has applied other new strategies such as wearing camouflage army coloured scrub-tops as the dogs run away from civilians [and are more comfortable around army fatigues]. Smaller individual box traps specially imported from Canada are also used to catch the more timid dogs. All dogs at local communities and army camps are routinely sterilized & vaccinated against rabies so that there is no further possibility of dogs being abandoned irresponsibly & being left to fend for themselves in the National Park / Cold Desert.
“We must keep in mind that if humans had not abandoned these dogs in the first place these feral dog packs would neither exist nor be hunting wildlife,” Dr. Bhutia points out.
It may also be mentioned here that these semi-wild dogs presented many challenges for the team.
“We have to observe them closely to learn their habits, where they hide and how best to find them. We even use psychology by disguising ourselves somewhat by changing into Army fatigue scrub tops (surgical dress) and applying army personnel’s perfume. We set dog traps, bait the traps for weeks to draw the dogs and finally catch them in large cages.  On the day of the surgery the animals are, as gently as possibly, netted and sedated prior to the full anesthesia and surgery,” he states.
He further adds that the surgery is performed to the highest standards just as in Gangtok in the OT with IV fluids and state of the art anesthesia but outside in the sunshine. “Our high level of experience and good technique results in fewer complications and these dogs are very resilient, only the tough ones would have survived this long in the harsh environment,” he explains.

The Project Director lastly states that SARAH Division is making sincere efforts where the achievements and benefits of this state wide animal birth control and anti-rabies (ABC/AR) and animal welfare programme are widely accepted in Sikkim.
[reporting by Anand Oberoi and Wangchuk Bhutia]

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